Xhex did not dislike Marissa. In truth, Xhex hadn’t enough knowledge of the female to like or dislike her. Rather, Marissa represented things that made Xhex uneasy; a type of comfort in her roles Xhex had never found, would never find, except maybe in the moments she was fighting. There were times where she felt close—at Rehv’s side, when John’s gaze caught hers—but never precisely as though all of her made sense. Marissa looked, acted, like someone who made sense, a female who made sense, and it set Xhex on edge.
Marissa had always seemed to – if not recognize and respect the fact that Xhex had nothing to say to her, then at least have nothing to say to Xhex in return and avoid her as best possible. As such, it was something of a surprise when Marissa ambushed Xhex on her way to the gym. Marissa, somehow looking perfect in ratty jeans and a sweatshirt, smiled that too-fucking-sweet smile and said in her oh-so-perfectly modulated tones, “Xhex, just the person I was looking for. Do you have a moment?”
Xhex considered lying, but any lie would be easily uncovered, aside from which Xhex wasn’t afraid of Marissa, just a little unnerved by her. Xhex cocked her head. “Did you need something?”
Marissa flushed, and Xhex realized a second too late she shouldn’t have asked that plainly. If she had played by Marissa’s rules, there would have been pleasantries. She didn’t mean to make the other woman uncomfortable, but she wasn’t going to apologize for her lack of breeding, either. Marissa tucked an invisible hair behind her ear. There was not a strand out of place. To Xhex’s surprise, Marissa’s next words were, “Forgive me.”
Xhex blinked. “Have you done something needing of forgiveness?”
“Clearly I have, since this is the first time we’ve spoken despite having lived in the same house for the better part of six months and you presumed—correctly—that I’ve something I want from you.”
“I do not mind,” Xhex told her, honestly.
Marissa smiled, rueful and unamused. “Perhaps not, but I certainly do.”
Something in Marissa’s abashed behavior, her slight vulnerability, made the band around Xhex’s chest loosen. She did her best to smile the way she did with John, unthreatening, real. “You should ask me for the favor you needed, anyway.”
Marissa’s smile widened then, something warm in it. “It’s more of a part-time job offer, really.”
“I have a job.”
“No, I know, but, see, the women at Safe Place? Well, quite a few of them have requested self-defense classes, and I rather like the idea myself, but most of them are, ah, it’s just that men—“
“Terrify them,” Xhex said quietly.
“The pay’s not much—“
“Evidently I have done something wrong as well, for you to believe I would take money for such a thing.” Xhex felt a little cold inside, more unsure than she wanted.
Marissa’s smile faded. “No, I— Asking for help is not my greatest strength. Even after Butch, I forget there are people out there who will help because it’s the right thing to do, rather than for anything I can offer them.”
Xhex turned the words over in her mind, and considered the strange fact that Marissa and she might have something in common after all. “I’m going to the gym now. We could talk about this over First Meal, though, if you liked.”
Marissa clasped her hands together. “I would like that. A lot.”
Xhex nodded, and went to run off the fact that she suspected she would like it every bit as much.
The conversation was stilted at first, but then Xhex said, “We should— There are children at Safe Place, too, yes?”
“They should learn, too.”
Marissa blinked. “They’re pre-trans. They’re—“
Xhex knew that, of course. “Self-defense is not about strength. It is about speed and knowledge and the choice to use that knowledge.”
Marissa tilted her head. “That’s…a fantastic idea. I’m glad you’re better at this than I am.”
“This is an aspect of my job.”
“People are bad at their jobs all the time.”
Xhex gave Marissa a Look. “Did you think I was bad at mine?”
Marissa laughed. “No, not really. I wouldn’t have asked if I’d thought that.”
Xhex believed her. “All right. Tell me how you get these women to trust you.”
Marissa shrugged. “By being myself.”
“I doubt that’s going to work with me.”
Marissa was silent for a long moment before saying, “I think you’ll be surprised.”
Xhex was surprised, and by more than just the wary but warm reception the women and children of the shelter gave her. She was surprised by the presence of more than one of the Brothers’ shellans there, waiting to be taught alongside those women. After the surprise passed, though, she was just glad. Not that she thought for a second the Brothers would allow any of the women they called their own to be harmed, but extra caution never hurt, and Xhex liked the idea of the others being able to hold their own.
Somewhere inside, the place where Xhex left feelings she couldn’t and didn’t want to identify, she was most pleased to see Ehlena and Bella had decided to attend. The two women were chatting, stretching together in a corner of the room. They smiled up at her when she arrived. She smiled back, putting into practice the lessons she had been teaching herself during her time at the compound: the basics of politeness, particularly with the other women.
After the first class, when both of them were gratifyingly sweaty and messy, if not less beautiful and female, they approached her. Xhex felt herself stiffening up. Ehlena and Bella were both Rehv’s, and therefore, important. Perhaps even more significantly, Xhex knew she owed John’s life to Bella alerting the Brotherhood of his existence. Theoretically, she appreciated these two females. They were just easier to value at a distance; one considerable enough that she didn’t have to speak to either of them.
Bella touched her fingers to Xhex’s elbow and squeezed, the practiced skin-to-skin contact of someone used to a person who didn’t like being touched. “This was incredible, sister.”
Xhex wasn’t sure why the words helped her to not want to pull away, but her skin stopped prickling with the need for space. “I was glad to see you attend.”
Ehlena tilted her head so her face was hidden slightly behind hair fallen loose from its bonds. “Might I ask a further favor?”
Xhex could not imagine what she had to give that Rehv did not, but she was willing to listen. “What sort of favor?”
“Teach me a few things that might help up in the colony?”
Ah. Xhex understood why Ehlena would never ask Rehv that, never bring it to his attention. Xhex was all too sure Rehv was wholly aware of the problem and just put safeguards in place on his own. However, if it would make Ehlena feel better to know the few tricks open to non-symphaths to help guard their minds, Xhex was more than willing to share. “Of course.”
“Do you like cinnamon popcorn?” Ehlena asked.
Unsure of what that had to do with anything, Xhex said, “The really spicy kind.”
Ehlena grinned. “Great, I’ll make us a killer batch, and you can snack while I do all the work.”
“Am I invited?” Bella wanted to know. “My brother is the king, and all. Might be useful.”
Xhex really hoped when Rehv and Z found out about this, they came after her one at a time. She felt like she deserved a fighting chance.
Xhex came in early before her third lesson at Safe Place to work through a few of the ideas she had, only to be met with the fact that the room they used for the sessions was occupied. Since her presence did not seem to have registered, Xhex spoke up. “Chosen.”
The female whipped around, blue eyes sharp and frustrated. “My name is Layla, teacher.”
Her tone of respect was ten times more eerie, given how clearly she wanted to spit with anger and disappointment and a few other negative emotions Xhex well knew Chosen weren’t supposed to feel. Then again, that was what Sanctuary was for. Xhex nodded. “I know.”
Xhex knew Layla had once provided blood that kept John Matthew alive, and Xhex both owed the Chosen, and wanted to rip her apart slowly for having served him in that way. Xhex knew Qhuinn often smelled of Layla, but not of sex, nowadays, which was oddly discomfiting. Mostly, Xhex knew that Layla, more than anyone, did what she was supposed to. It was hard to disrespect, even if Xhex could never have done the same, would have fought against Layla’s role to her last breath; perhaps especially for that reason. Then again, that could have been why Xhex couldn’t wholly disregard what Layla did, especially now that it would be so easy for her to just leave the Brotherhood to its own devices, take her life back for herself.
Some of the fight drained from Layla’s expression. Xhex was unsurprised at her own disappointment. Layla asked, “Would you consider it inappropriate for a Chosen to join your class?”
“Cormia is here every week.”
“Got a better deal than you,” Xhex cut her off.
Layla blinked then, tilting her head, as if just now starting to pay attention. Slowly, she said, “I do not desire the Primale as a husband.”
Xhex believed that, at least in the sense that Layla did not want Phury. Xhex was not sure she believed Layla would not love serving in the role of Primale’s first consort. The query was beside the point, however. “I doubt you much desire being an open buffet for the Brotherhood, but it needs doing, so you do it.”
The anger that hadn’t been far buried flashed in Layla’s eyes again. Xhex met the expression head on, somewhat reassured by it. She softened her previous statement by continuing, “We’re all called by duty, in one way or another. I do not envy your call, all the same.”
Some of the tightness seeped from Layla’s shoulders. “I just wish to learn my own body, to know it as something other than a vessel for others’ pleasures. An empty vessel.”
Xhex was not Marissa or Beth or even Jane with their knowledge of others, inside and out, their ability to say the right thing at the right time. Nothing Xhex could say would change Layla’s reality, nor reshape her view of the world as she knew it. Xhex had one thing she could help the female with: “I can catch you up on what we’ve been doing these past weeks.”
Layla’s smile was just wide enough to reveal hints of her fangs. “Yes?”
Xhex smiled in response, not terribly wide, but honest. “Yes.”
Mary set her plate at the table next to Xhex during First Meal and asked, “Mind if I join?” her hands flying in sign even as she verbalized the question.
John’s smile was uncomplicated and warm as he made the sign for, “Please.”
Xhex did not get to see that smile on him very often. She was distracted by it for a moment, so it took her a second to realize Mary was waiting for Xhex to consent as well. Surprised by the female’s depth of consideration, Xhex said, “Of course.”
There was an awkward, but not precisely strained, silence for a moment before Beth said softly, “You look good, John.”
And there was that smile again, except brighter, sweeter. Xhex knew it wasn’t for her, not precisely, but she also knew, instinctively, John didn’t smile that way for anyone without her around, so she didn’t mind. Mary had kept John alive, given him something to focus on and be strong for at a time when he’d desperately needed it. Xhex might not have much to talk about with Rhage’s shellan, but she didn’t begrudge Mary any kind of friendship she might desire.
Xhex ate, only vaguely paying attention to the conversation between John and Mary until Mary turned to her and commented, “I really enjoy your classes. We should have done something like them a long time ago, even just for ourselves. They make me feel like I have more control over things.”
There was a flush to Mary that wasn’t entirely from excitement, and Xhex wondered idly how Mary’s new confidence was going over in the bedroom. Politely, Xhex kept both the thought—and the grin it caused—to herself. Instead she offered, “I was thinking about offering something a little more advanced for those of you who are interested.”
It was hard to keep her voice even as she said it. Knowing Mary would jump at the chance, Bella and Ehlena and Cormia would all be thrilled, and most likely Marissa, Layla, Beth and a few of the women at Safe Place would be happy as well, did not make it easy to overcome years of keeping to herself, of never offering more than was prised from her, knowing rejection at every moment when she’d thought to try out generosity. Under the table, John’s knee pressed solidly against hers. She appreciated his ability to make her know he was there, would be there, but she kept her gaze on Mary.
Mary did not hide her grin. “That would be fantastic. Here? At the house? Or at Safe Place? Either way, I can’t wait. I just wish there was something I could offer in return.”
Xhex looked down at her plate. After a second, Mary asked, “Xhex? Is there something?”
Reminding herself she didn’t care what other people thought of her, certainly not Mary and, all right, John, a little, but only because he didn’t judge. “You make those peanut butter chocolate bar things.”
Mary nodded slowly. “You want a batch? Lifetime supply?”
They were John’s favorite cookies. Xhex’s too, actually, something the two of them shared, something simple and delicious and that Xhex liked feeding to John, then tasting on him. “I was— I would like to learn to make them.”
She had never really made much in the kitchen, other than basics, but she could manage well enough. The usual response to her expressing any interest in home arts was either shock or laughter, so Xhex braced herself for either.
Instead, Mary said, “Yeah, of course. Jane’s been asking too. I could do an afternoon session. Sound about right?”
John signed, “This doesn’t mean she’s turning down the lifetime supply offer.”
Xhex laughed. “No, definitely not.”
There was always a comfort in sparring, a rhythm Xhex could fall into, could allow herself to trust and rely on, letting go of everything outside, everything on her mind, the things she couldn’t fix with her hands or legs or fangs. But as comfortable as pitching herself against John or Blay or Qhuinn or Tohr was, nothing fit like a good, long session against Payne. Payne did not waste time or energy on preliminaries, nor did she feel any need to hold back against Xhex. They were well-matched, in temperament and strength.
It could take hours before one of them would tap out, allowing the other victory for that session. Even in the aftermath, the quiet between them was easy, calming. Xhex was as surprised by herself as anyone when she broke it one day to ask, “Gonna come to Mary’s class?”
Payne raised her eyebrows. “Her instruction on the making of gingerbread?”
The peanut butter-chocolate bar session had been such a success—Mary had a talent for breaking processes down and a patience for relaying the pieces—that she’d held one for her almond macaroons, oatmeal raisin cookies, chocolate crinkles, and was now offering a gingerbread session as a way to kick off the holiday season. Xhex had gone each time, partly because it was always worthwhile having a new skill, partly because Mary meant something to John and was coming to mean something to her, but mostly, if she was honest, because it was an easy way to be around the other women. They never expected her to contribute to the discussion, but also did not act as if it were either a miracle or intrusion when she did.
The advanced defense classes made her feel useful in regard to the other females of the house. The baking classes made her feel as though she made sense in their midst, even if only a little bit. It was a novel feeling, and one she didn’t always trust, but wanted to keep for as long as she could. Xhex told Payne, “Mary lets us eat the batter.”
Payne considered this. “Batter tastes good?”
Xhex rolled her eyes. “What has that human of yours been teaching you?”
Rolling out dough for gingerbread cookies was, as it turned out, meditative. After a bit, Xhex and Payne took over on that “station” completely, leaving the mixing of the ingredients to Jane and Ehlena, the kneading to Beth and Cormia, the choice of shape and cutting to Mary and Layla, and the decoration to Marissa and Bella.
When Rhage and Tohr started sniffing around, Payne and Xhex were assigned the duty of letting the males know they would be given cookies when the bakers were ready, if ever. Payne did a very good job of regally commanding the males to leave, but Xhex liked to think it was her uncanny ability to win almost any staring test that really accomplished the feat.
Mary gave Payne first go at the batter bowl as a welcome, and because Layla had said, “You must try this; it is the kind of thing your mother is afraid for us to find out about.”
When she had taken her fill, Payne handed the bowl to Layla. Nobody argued.
Bella showed Xhex the gingerbread family she’d made—Bella and Z and Nalla, but also Rehv, complete with his mohawk, Ehlena, Cormia, Phury, John and Xhex. Xhex said, “But now if we eat one of them, it’ll be an incomplete set.”
Bella bit off Rehv’s head and chewed. She handed over her cookie-self. “We can make more.”
Xhex looked down at the perfectly shaped gingerbread female in her hand. Then she nodded, and took a bite.